Supervisors to weigh more Paso groundwater basin changes

dsneed@thetribunenews.comSeptember 26, 2013 

County supervisors will hold a daylong hearing Tuesday to update efforts to stabilize the Paso Robles groundwater basin, including possibly extending a vineyard planting moratorium to two years.

The hearing over the complex and controversial issue is expected to take six hours.

Supervisors are expected to set criteria for offsetting new water demand and to allow some vineyard owners to complete planting, and adjust county codes to reduce water demand in the basin.

However, the most contentious item will be extending an emergency ordinance that bans the planting of new vineyards without offsetting the water they will use. Extending the ordinance will require a unanimous vote of the four supervisors.

“I would be quite surprised if we don’t extend the ordinance,” said Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who chairs the board. “A lot of people have come together to get this done.”

Supervisor Debbie Arnold reluctantly voted for the ordinance Aug. 27. She said Wednesday that she does not know what will happen Tuesday.

The ordinance applies to the planting of all new irrigated crops and all new development that would increase water demand. It is intended to be a way to slow declines in the aquifer until a permanent plan to stabilize the basin can be found.

Water levels in the basin have declined precipitously in recent years. Levels in some areas of the basin have gone down by more than 70 feet in the past 15 years.

The 45-day emergency ordinance expires Oct. 11. The board will consider extending it to two years, the maximum allowed by law.

The hearing is scheduled for Tuesday to give supervisors the ability to hold a second hearing Oct. 8 if no agreement can be reached next week, Gibson said.

“I hope there is no reason for a hearing on the eighth, but this gives us some breathing room if something comes up,” he said.

A delay to Oct. 8 would also give Gov. Jerry Brown another week to appoint a successor for Supervisor Paul Teixeira, who died in June. An appointment would supply a fifth vote on the board that could break a deadlock. The governor’s office has given no indication when a decision will be made.

Supervisor Frank Mecham said he supports extending the ordinance in order give the county time to find a permanent solution. Development and the growth of the wine industry are only going to increase demand on the basin, he said.

“There’s a lot of information out there, and I’m convinced the basin is in decline and we need to stabilize it,” he said. “I feel very firmly about that.”

Mecham said he recently hosted a meeting between two groups representing rural homeowners and growers in the basin. All agreed that the emergency ordinance should be extended and a water district should be formed to manage the basin.

However, the two groups disagreed on how that district should be governed. Vintners want the property owners who pay the most in taxes to have the greatest say, while rural residents want a one-person-one-vote representation.

“I think there is a way to do this so that everyone has a say,” Mecham said.

In addition to extending the emergency ordinance, supervisors will also review a resolution that would clarify rules for establishing vested rights. These rights could give vintners an exemption to the emergency ordinance if they have done substantial site preparation, installed irrigation systems or purchased vines for planting prior to the adoption of the ordinance.

“Staff believes that this combination of factors represents that a property owner made a significant commitment toward establishment of an irrigated crop prior to the ordinance going into effect,” summarized a staff report.

Finally, supervisors will give direction to staff on establishing guidelines for water offsets and conservation that can be used for new plantings and development so the goal of no net increase in water pumping can be achieved.

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